Bill Potts: 555 Feet High
“ From my vantage point, if Bill Potts had written nothing more than 'Big Swing Face' for the Buddy Rich Band in the late '60s he would be numbered among my heroes. ”
The Graceland mansion in Memphis, TN, where Elvis Presley used to live and where his body now lies, has been turned into a shrine to the King, drawing thousands upon thousands of reverential visitors each year. I have no problem with that; if people choose to worship at the altar of Elvis, that's their business, none of mine.
Ray, an Academy Award-nominated film about the life of blues / R&B singer Ray Charles, was released last year, almost before his body was cold. That's fine too; like Elvis, Ray was an American icon, and no tribute to him can be derided as misconceived.
There'll be no monuments to William Orie Potts, better known to family, friends and a handful of Jazz musicians and fans familiar with his work, as Bill. Nor are we likely to see any Hollywood film devoted to his life and times. Perhaps that would be asking too much.
On the other hand, when one accomplished as much in his lifetime as Bill Potts, the hope is that Life would usher him on his way with a friendly pat on the back and a few words of approval for a job well done. But Bill Potts devoted much of his life to Jazz, which doesn't seem to carry much weight these days when it comes to recognizing excellence. After scanning the Web for a week after his passing, this is the most extensive notice I could find, from the Fort Lauderdale (FL) Sun-Sentinel:
"Potts, William O, 76, of Fort Lauderdale, FL died on February 15, 2005. Levitt-Weinstein Memorial Chapel."?
That was rather disheartening, to understate the case. Finally, on February 23, a week after his passing, the Washington Post, which covers the area where Potts spent much of his remarkable career as a composer, arranger, pianist, bandleader and educator, published a more inclusive notice, focusing essentially on his best-known work, the 1959 album The Jazz Soul of Porgy & Bess, touching on his involvement with the superb D.C. big band named simply THE Orchestra, and noting his recording sessions in December 1956 with the legendary tenor saxophonist Lester "Prez"? Young. Predictably, the Post got the date of his death wrong (unless, that is, the Sun-Sentinel did).
In the over-all scheme of things, is it really important that the world pay its respects to Bill Potts? Perhaps not, but even so, it would have been nice to see a few more words written about a man who was, to some, a giant in his field. Happily, the music he created will live on, at least in part, giving pleasure to generations yet to come, even though the name of the composer may be shrouded in mystery.
From my vantage point, if Bill Potts had written nothing more than "Big Swing Face"? for the Buddy Rich Band in the late '60s he would be numbered among my heroes. That's one of the greatest Jazz charts I've ever heard. But he wrote much more than that, starting as a young man in the D.C. area and with the U.S. Army band from 1949-55. He was chief arranger for THE Orchestra, a spectacular fifteen-piece ensemble led by drummer Joe Timer (a.k.a. Theimer) and fronted by disc jockey Willis Conover, who would later earn lasting fame as the long-time "Jazz voice"? of the Voice of America. Potts wrote a number of memorable charts for the ensemble as well as brilliant original compositions, four of which "Pill Box,"? "Light Green,"? "Playground"? and of course, "Willis"? are included on THE Orchestra's only album, Willis Conover's House of Sounds Presents THE Orchestra, recorded in 1953 on the Brunswick label. (As an aside, I played that LP until the grooves were literally worn to mush, and was lucky enough to acquire a CD copy from a friend and fellow Washingtonian [who now lives in CA], Walt Kraemer. Thanks again, Walt.)
Alto saxophonist Jim Riley, one of the few surviving members of THE Orchestra (baritone Jack Nimitz, a West Coast stalwart for many years, is another), recalls those days fondly: ". . . when I played with the Theimer band,"? he says, "Bill was never absent during a rehearsal or performance. He brought all that equipment down from Fort Myer (where he was a performance engineer with the Army band), set it up, recorded everything, tore it down, and returned it in perfect shape. I was always so pleased to hear charts in toto after I had been concentrating so hard and so intensely on my own minor role.
"Those were very helpful sessions, and the Theimer band would not have been the same without them. And I remember Bill bringing in 'Light Green,' and later, 'Playground,' those delightful arrangements we so loved playing. There were so many charts, there seemed always to be something new.